Renowned female journalist talks war reporting

By Matt Daray

Telling stories is what Jackie Spinner loves to do.

Spinner, a renowned journalist and SIU alumna, told her own story Monday at the Morris Library Auditorium in celebration of Women’s History Month.

While she spoke of her time covering the Iraq War, she said it was hard for her to not take pictures of the audience during her presentation.


“I can’t stop being a reporter,” she said.

Throughout Spinner’s career, she reported everything from congress and legislation to gang members and military sex scandals while also taking her own photographs and video.

While covering the Iraq war, she was the first to get an interview with a Marine from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

She also covered parts of Arab Spring, the wave of demonstrations in the Arab world, for Al-Jazeera, an independent broadcaster in Qatar.

“Pretty much any place where I get to go for the first time and have to uncover a story is fun for me,” she said.

Because she was the first to get an interview with one of the soldiers from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Spinner was granted her request to report in the Iraq war.

She was supposed to stay overseas for six weeks but ended up staying for two years.

“I love telling solider stories from the warzone as much as I like telling stories about Iraqis, too. When war comes to people, those stories are important to be told,” Spinner said.

Spinner reported of a young Marine who would drive a fuel truck over a dangerous strip of highway. She said the Marine would sing Justin Timberlake to help him forget about the chances of dying.

She also followed a group of Marines and was at the Battle of Fallujah.

“Fallujah was scary. There were many days when I was surprised that I had woken up,” she said.

Spinner said Fallujah had a longer-lasting effect on her than most of what she encountered in Iraq.

“Being a non-combatant in a war zone is pretty terrifying. That’s not to take away anything from the soldiers, Marines, airmen and Navy who are in a battle. I’m not a solider. I’m not a hero. And I’d never take that away from them,” she said.

Spinner said she thinks war journalists face a lot of criticism.

“People think journalists are the enemy in a warzone and we’re not,”she said.

Journalists are there to bear witness and are responsible for being credible and trustworthy, she said.

She said she thinks men and women are treated equally in journalism, but there are still barriers for women in the field. She said it is upsetting to hear about people questioning female reporters having the right to cover wars.

Spinner said she believes women are capable of everything their male counterparts are.

“I think it has been an asset (being a woman), particularly in a place like the Middle East,” she said.

Spinner said she was able to dress in Iraqi attire and talk to women in ways men can’t.

“I was not a liability to the military units I was with because of my size or my strength. I was a liability because I carried a pen. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was a woman,” Spinner said.

Spinner said she was mentally sick when she arrived home from Iraq.

“I was traumatized,” she said. “I had issues from being in war and I needed to focus on getting healthy. I left the Washington Post so my idea of normal would be normal again.”

Spinner said she thinks it is important for war journalists to talk about the psychological impact of war.

Though it was a big decision to leave the Washington Post, where she worked from 1995 to 2009, Spinner said she has been able to do more as a journalist.

In 2009, Spinner founded Angel Says: Read, a non-profit organization  in Belize that takes book donations from tourists to public libraries.

Spinner said she did most of her healing in Belize and wanted to do something for the country.

She remains executive director of the organization.

In 2010, Spinner returned to Iraq and started Iraq’s first independent student newspaper, AUI-S Voice, at The American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.

Spinner said she used techniques and principles she learned  at the Daily Egyptian to teach the students.

She began work at the Daily Egyptian during her freshman year at SIUC, making her the only member of the paper younger than a junior. She worked at the paper for four years, she said, eventually becoming editor-in-chief during her senior year.

Spinner graduated from SIU with a Bachelor’s of Science in journalism and later earned a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Spinner’s career and accomplishments have amazed members of SIU.

“I was really interested in the role of women and war reporting,” said Rexann Whorton, a graduate student from Ava, Mo., in higher education and administration, “It’s not something you hear a lot about.”

Whorton said she was involved in the Women’s History Month planning committee responsible for bringing Spinner to SIU.

She said she was familiar with Spinner’s work before this and was impressed to learn more. Whorton said she likes how Spinner is always impartial with her work and doesn’t try to force her opinion into it.

“I think she’s a great reporter and a great rolemodel, especially for women in journalism at SIU,” Whorton said.

Spinner has also inspired SIU alumna Laura Taylor, a member of the SIU Alumni Association.

“Jackie is a perfect example of what woman can do when they are empowered and are educated,” Taylor said.

The Alumni Association assisted in securing Jackie’s return for a speaking opportunity. Taylor said Spinner had spoken at her commencement ceremony when Taylor graduated in 2005.

Taylor said she recalls Spinner tossing all of her job rejection letters into the crowd and telling the audience not to give up.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for SIU to have someone like Jackie come back and not only speak to her accomplishments in life but speak to what her SIU degree helped her accomplish,” Taylor said.

Spinner is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College in Chicago.

She posts articles, pictures and video of her work on her website,, and wrote “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry,” a memoir of her time in Iraq.